Teresa Chuc Dowell
Teresa Chuc Dowell is a
public high school English teacher in
A Century of Life Light as a Bobby Pin
Grandma Phan sits on a pink plastic footstool at the coffee table in the living room. Arranged in front of her is a small round mirror with a silver frame and stand, black and brown bobby pins, and a metal clip. She lets down her silvery gray white hair that flows in a thin stream down her back to her waist. Methodically she combs her hair, dragging the black teeth as her hair glistens in its untangling straightness along its path and becomes an airy softness. Time seems to stand still as her fingers lightly and carefully smooth her hair into a tail and twist it into a bun that she clips at the back of her head angling her head in the mirror to survey her work. One by one, she picks up a bobby pin then holds it between her lips as she pulls back a few strands of hair that escaped and sticks the pin in place. Mei Wai sits quietly on the sofa, not realizing she is watching her grandma as she rhythmically but noiselessly swings her feet though she was told doing so would shorten years of her life. Grandma Phan doesn’t notice her; otherwise, she would have told Mei Wai to stop swinging. Mei Wai is the youngest in the family; the daughter of Grandma Phan’s youngest son of her seven children, and they share a room, occasionally to Mei Wai’s dissatisfaction. She is twelves years old, a girl trying to shed a part of herself as she is finding herself – the paradox of being a teenager. One side of the room is Grandma Phan’s and the other side is Mei Wai’s. Mei Wai is sent to bed at 8. She is in bed before her older brother who is three years her senior. Her parents and Grandma Phan go to bed an hour or two later. Upon entering the room to prepare for bed, Grandma Phan turns on the light, gathers her assortment of medicated oil ointments – white flower scented and jasmine scented. A strong waft of minty fragrance invades the air and hangs there. Being woken up by the light and scent, half asleep and drowsy eyed, Mei Wai watches her grandma sit on the bed at the other side of the room, roll up her pant legs revealing magnolia white skin with bluish green veins and rub the medicated oils all over her legs. Then Grandma Phan turns off the light and darkness fills the room again with only the orange glow of a nightlight.
Chuc and Mrs. Chuc wake
up very early for work and would often be gone before Mei
Wai wakes up. What usually wakes up Mei Wai besides the alarm clock
is the neighbor’s rooster or a banging of a gong and the scent of incense
seeping through the bottom crack of the door filling the room with its scent
and film on the wall. Grandma Phan is usually
up by 6 and dons her brown robe, lights incense for the ancestors, the two
gods that are Mei Wai’s
godparents – Goon Yum Toe Fat and Kwan Sing Dye Gwun
and various other gods. Goon Yum was a female goddess with a red mark on her
forehead which she received from saving her father’s life when someone tried
to kill him with a sword. She blocked them and they killed her instead.
Due to this act, she became a goddess. Kwan Sing Dye Gwun
was a general with a face painted red. He holds a sword and a book. He is a
god of strength and wisdom. Mei Wai
would wake up, get ready for school and take a walk down to the bus
station. Grandma Phan stays home during the
day after Ah Hoang, Mei Wai’s
brother, leaves for school. She keeps busy cooking, talking on the
phone with relatives, cleaning, reading and reminiscing about her life back
“Eat slowly Mei Wai,” Grandma Phan says, “You will live longer if you eat slower. Turtles live very long lives.” Mei Wai naturally slows down, afraid to shorten years in her life and of grandma yelling at her for not being obedient. At times, Mei Wai wonders if what Grandma Phan said was true – that she would come back after she died to haunt Mei Wai if she talked back and was disobedient.
Grandma Phan occupies a large portion of her day with cooking. She prepares dishes like pork and boiled eggs cooked in soy sauce and ginger or tomato soup with cabbage and meatballs, one of Mei Wai’s favorites. One day, Mei Wai is feverish with flu-like symptoms and a bad cough and stays home from school. The night before, Mrs. Chuc cooks plain rice porridge for her daughter and rubs white flower medicated oil onto Mei Wai’s chest and back to let out some wind. Grandma Phan warms the porridge, patiently stirring so that it would not stick to the bottom of the pot and burn. She sprinkles some dried, shredded pork on top of the bowl of rice white like freshly fallen snow. The rice gives her energy but is easily digestible and the plainness would not upset her stomach. After work, Mrs. Chuc takes her daughter to an herbalist who practices traditional Chinese medicine. As they walk into the herbal store, a mixture of scents – ginseng roots, lotus seeds, dried squid, herbs (an assortment of dried leaves, roots, and branches), dried mushrooms, medicated oils, dried plum snacks, dried red dates, all swirl in the air creating the distinct smell of herbal stores. Mrs. Chuc speaks to a woman behind the counter who then looks at Mei Wai and gives a sympathetic nod. Chan See Fu works in a small back room, an older man in his late fifties or early sixties with crooked teeth. On his desk is a small pillow with a clear plastic covering for his patient to lay their hand, wrist up, for the taking of pulse. Mei Wai sits down on the fold-up chair besides the desk and timidly places her hand, wrist up, on the small pillow. Chan See Fu takes her pulse, then asks her to stick out her tongue, and proceeds to ask her a series of questions such as the kind of phlegm she has in the morning, its color and consistency, whether her cough is dry and whether she coughs mostly at night or during the day. He also asks her questions about her bowl movements, and how she’s been sleeping and whether she’s been having nightmares. As he is listening to Mei Wai’s answers, Chan See Fu draws the names of herbs onto a notepad, beautiful columns of Chinese characters that is the precise mixture to cure her illness. “You’ve caught wind,” he says in Chinese. Mei Wai’s sickness is in a later and deeper stage. It is advised to see the doctor and get the herbs while the sickness is at an earlier stage; it is at this time that the sickness can be cured quickly and easily. When he is done, he stands up and walks to the counter behind which is a wall full of tiny cabinets each containing a different herb; Mrs. Chuc and Mei Wai follow him out of the room and wait in front of the counter. Mei Wai watches as Chan See Fu spreads out three square pieces of butcher paper on the counter, points and reads out loud the name of the first herb, turns around, opens a cabinet and reaches for a handful of the rootlike herb, placing it on a scale he holds dangling in his hand and carefully removing and adding some until the scale is balanced. He continues until the pink papers are full of an assortment of herbs; some leaflike, some rootlike, some seedlike, some barklike. Mei Wai breathes in the aroma as she waits. Then Chan See Fu folds the opposite corners of the paper creating a funnel and pours the herbs through the tunnel into the bag; he taps the pregnant bag on the counter so that the herbs fall into place. He walks to an end of the counter where there is a sealing machine and seals the bag tightly. He fills two more bags with herbs and seals them. On each bag, in red characters, is the name and address of the herbal store. He drops the three bags into a white plastic bag along with some haw flakes, a sweet and tart treat usually eaten to relieve one of the sharp bitterness of the medicine. A woman behind the counter chiks chiks the abacus and says, “Yee sup mun”. Mrs. Chuc promptly pays for the medicine thanking the woman and Chan See Fu and walks out the store with her daughter.
It will be a decade later when Mei Wai truly appreciates the ancient gift of herbs and medicine given her by her culture. As a child, she is taught casually the causes of sickness being wind, dryness, heat, Summer heat, and dampness. The body is a mechanism of temperatures and every food can contribute to heat, cause wind or dryness, or be cooling like honeydews, watermelons, and cantaloupe. Mrs. Chuc tells her daughter when she has a sore throat, “Don’t eat bananas, nuts, fried foods, shrimp, lobster, crabs, or spicy foods. They are heat foods.” At home, Mrs. Chuc puts a bagful of herbs into an electric medicine cooker and adds 5 cups of water to the pot. The herbs cook for about three hours and make exactly one bowl of black, bitter medicine. Upon taking the medicine before bed that day, Mei Wai’s body heats up and sweats as the medicine is doing its job. After the first bowl, water is added to the pot and another bowl is made with the same bag of herbs. Mei Wai drinks the medicine twice a day; once in the morning and once at night for three days and she is better by the third day.
Mei Wai is closer to Grandma Phan than anyone in her family. Mr. and Mrs. Chuc are usually too busy working and she has learned not to talk much around them. Mei Wai and her brother disagree on most things. She has the most memories with her grandma who use to walk her to school and pick her up from school. It was Grandma Phan who dipped her hand in warm salt water when she was five years old and was stung by a yellow jacket. Grandma Phan is the anchor that keeps the boat still and from capsizing. Now, Grandma Phan is 80 years old and Mei Wai is 17 years old. Soon, Mei Wai and her brother are both in college and living away from home. Grandma Phan occupies herself at home cooking, cleaning, washing her own clothes, talking on the phone, drying tangerine or grapefruit peels in the hot sun to be cooked later in red bean or green bean soup desserts, reading, and entertaining occasional visits from friends, relatives, and great grandchildren. Life is lonelier than before. Each time Mei Wai comes home to visit, Grandma Phan seems to be shrinking and her walk becomes more and more of a slow shuffle scratching the floor. During the last decade of her life, she is demanding; Mr. and Mrs. Chuc jumps to her every request. There is talk of sharing Grandma Phan among her children. She has always been living with her youngest son and on him and his wife was the burden and responsibility of being dutiful children biding her every wish; she is the matriarch after all. However, she continues to stay with her youngest for one reason or another.
Mei Wai watches her 90 year old grandma as she moves back and forth in the kitchen cooking one of her famous dishes. Once Grandma Phan was washing her clothes and Mei Wai offered to help only to receive a sharp refusal. There is a particularity about Grandma Phan, as if there is not one doubt in her that she could not do what she has been doing for almost a century and as if accepting any kind of help is a sign of weakness and she is determined not to be weak. When Grandma Phan is 92, she has her first stroke. She is hospitalized and on life support. The doctor says that there is no hope and for her children to decide whether to keep her on life support or pull the plug. All seven children come, two from out-of-state. The line on the screen is straight like the horizon. Grandma Phan’s daughter brings a tape player and turns on some Buddhist chants. The next day, a miracle happens and Grandma Phan wakes up. She starts yelling at people and asking why she is wearing a hospital gown and using hospital blankets. She then proceeds to order her son to get her blankets and clothes from home. She says she doesn’t want to be at the hospital and will walk home if she has to. In the following week, Grandma Phan needs to learn to walk again pushing her children away as they try to help her. “I can do it by myself!” she exclaims. They watch in nervousness, sure that their nearly century old mother would stumble and fall. After another week, Grandma Phan returns home only to have another stroke after a few days. She goes to a nursing home. Mei Wai visits her there, pushing her in the wheelchair around the limited expanse of garden with its small, comforting fountain and coi fish. Grandma Phan will be dying soon. Mei Wai brings her favorite gladioli and places them in a vase beside her bed. Grandma Phan, with the lucidity of someone near another world, says, “Don’t think too much Ah Wai. It doesn’t help to think too much.” For a long time Mei Wai ponders over these words said to her when she was younger and every time she faces some bitter time in her life and Grandma Phan sees the worry in her granddaughter’s face, she would say these words. What does Grandma Phan mean? Mei Wai feels her limitness. “Yoon won. Yow yun see tien quet ding.” Grandma Phan would say – “Fate. Sometimes heaven decides.”
At the funeral, Grandma Phan’s face is powdered white. Her lipsticks bright red. She looks like a doll. Her children wear black or white funeral clothes and black or white headbands around their heads. Mei Wai was always told as a child not to wear a black or white headband because it symbolized the death of a parent and could bring bad luck. The children kneel down then everyone lines up to offer an incense to Grandma Phan during a monk’s chanting and banging of a gong. The room is surrounded by red, yellow, and orange gladioli. They parade pass the coffin and the corpse while metal tins are being prepared outside for the burning ritual. The family gathers around the tin bin while a bright flame alights within. They throw in “money” or square pieces of paper with a silver or gold square in the middle, a paper house, a car, clothes. Mei Wai wonders about the irony of this Buddhist ritual and comforts herself by remembering a quote from Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Grandma Phan dies and along with it an intricately woven web that connected everyone in the family is brushed away like cobweb in a corner as quickly and as easily – there would be no more family gatherings requiring a presence for the matriarch.
After a few weeks, Mr. Chuc shows Mei Wai a photo of the burial site, standing around are men with shovels, and the white light that rose from the ground where Grandma Phan’s ashes are buried – some things can not be explained, they just are. Months and years go by. Mei Wai wonders whether or not Grandma Phan’s spirit will return. She imagines seeing her grandma unexpectedly in the house in the middle of a daily chore. Mrs. Chuc tells Mei Wai how Grandma Phan’s spirit protects them and contests the power of her spirit to the ever fresh and green grapefruit leaves placed in front of Grandma Phan’s picture on the altar. Mrs. Chuc says, “All the leaves from the other grapefruits dry up and wither in a week, but the leaves on the branches of the grapefruit in front of Grandma Phan’s photo are still like when they were just plucked from the tree, even after a month.”
Swatting a Fly in One’s Hands
Chang and Mrs. Chang are in their white Toyota Camry driving down the
freeway. Mrs. Chang makes the comment again as a sky blue Mercedes
convertible rushes by and cuts in front of their car, “In a hurry to
reincarnate.” She can not understand why someone would want to risk their
life by rushing to get somewhere. Mrs. Chang isn’t one to take big
chances; prefers to play things safe like when she goes to
Chang and Mrs. Chang both work at an American bank. Mrs. Chang began
working there shortly after she and her kids immigrated to the
time the economy was suffering and the bank had to downsize, Mr. Chang and Mrs.
Chang would come home worried. They are in their 50’s and would not know
where to find another job thinking that no one would want to hire them.
Mrs. Chang has been working for the bank for nearly three decades and Mr.
Chang has been working for about two decades. It is the same thing
every day; they get up at , eat a bag of instant
noodles. In their kitchen is a file cabinet and every drawer is stuffed
with a different kind of instant noodle. They get their lunches ready. Mrs.
Chang prays and offers incense to the gods and ancestors on the altar, and
they commute to work in downtown
can not say that Mr. Chang and Mrs. Chang’s lives are monotonous or
completely self-sacrificing. Since their children, Matthew and Tracey,
moved out to college, they have slowly built their lives again and their free
time have been slowly regained. When Matthew and Tracey were both in
their thirties and self-sufficient, a few times throughout the year, Mr.
Chang and Mrs. Chang travel with tour groups to places like
On Fridays, Tracey’s older two sons come over to visit and spend the night with Grandpa Chang and Grandma Chang; it’s like camping for them and givesTracey some much needed rest and allows her some time to give her youngest son individual attention. Mr. Chang and Mrs. Chang enjoy having their grandsons over. The first time Tracey really saw her father laugh and smile and open up was when he held his little grandson, Al, in his hands a decade ago.
Mr. Chang and Mrs. Chang have two very different children. Matthew is more like his parents and seemed more agreeable to them while a teenager. Tracey was the rebellious one, beyond her parents understanding. She was three and a half years younger than Matthew and ruled by Aquarius and was reserved and deep in thought, at times, as those born under the year of the rabbit tend to be; but, at times, wild and beyond reason as Waterbearers sometimes are - they go by their own set of reason. Matthew went off to college majoring in business at U.S.C. to his Chinese immigrant parents’ delight and Tracey went to college majoring in philosophy to her Chinese immigrant parents’ despair, the only thing redeeming her being that she also attended the home of the Trojans.
Mr. Chang and Mrs. Chang’s nerve cells are no longer at ends now that Tracey has settled down, well sort of. Married divorced married divorced three boys. However, she seems to have some parts of her life together being a public high school English teacher supporting herself and her kids. Life is finally leveling itself for Mr. Chang and Mrs. Chang in their coming of old age. Mr. Chang will be retiring in a year and Mrs. Chang will be retiring in two to three years. For now, husband and wife are still milling away at their jobs and their age is bearing the weight of the work that youth could easily bear and the increased worry and stress over losing their jobs to young college graduates who start at the bottom of the pay scale are showing in their wrinkles and body aches. Mrs. Chang is monitoring her high cholesterol and high blood pressure and taking pills. Her heart is being examined due to aches and she is taking pills for this condition as well.
Tracey did not grow up in the
Tracey was texting her boyfriend.
T: My dream – to be financially
Independent as a writer.
I am too selfish with my time
To be teaching full-time.
E: Me too. Live the dream.
E: Feeling selfish.
T: Fishing for the self –
It can be a good thing.
E: As long as the fish bites.
T: As long as the bait is
Savory, it will bite.
E: LOL. Or supple.
T: LOL. To each his/her own.
A few times, Tracey tried to share her excitement of her writing being accepted for publication by a literary magazine. Yet, it is hard for Mr. Chang and Mrs. Chang to see the value of something that doesn’t yield money to support one’s life. So, Tracey’s excitement falls on their muffled ears and their response not quite matching what Tracey had hoped for and she knew better than to hope for it but would somehow hope for it anyways and then get disappointed.
In China, in Tracey’s ancestors’ time (great grandparents), in Vietnam, in Mr. Chang and Mrs. Chang’s time, people did not dare think in “I”. Their dreams are not for themselves; they scatter in the wind like dandelion seeds and are caught in the hands of their parents or children - sometimes gently sometimes like swatting a fly between the palms.